According to a poll undertaken by YouGov in 2014, it strikes fear in the hearts of 56% of the adult population in the UK. FIFTY-SIX PERCENT of us are terrified of speaking to groups of people. That’s over 28 million people, so actually if you too are afraid of public speaking, you’re in the majority. And It has a name — “Glossophobia”, so it’s absolutely a thing…. I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that 1 in 2 adults fear public speaking, some more than death?
My first foray into public speaking happened when I was 6 years old, narrating the school nativity play. I always wanted to be the Angel Gabriel, but I was the only kid in my class who could read so I was automatically bestowed the role of “narrator”. I had recently moved from Huddersfield to Hackney and I had brought my thick northern accent along with me. Reading through the story of Mary and Joseph as my classmates bungled about on stage in bed sheets and tea towels the audience (being the rest of the school and parents) looked at me confused. 350 kids along with mums and dads stared at me as though I had just arrived from another planet. Turns out this particular demographic in East London in 1987 weren’t ready for my “Aye-up our kid” twang and definitely made sure I knew it during my time at that particular school. I couldn’t see a problem, I know I read that script perfectly so, whatevs…
I didn’t do much in the way of public speaking after this, and attempting to assimilate into the East London community my accent quickly faded, replaced by a lame quasi-cockney/Yorkshire drawl that meant I didn’t really identify with any particular location. People who’ve known me through this time (mostly my childhood through to my early twenties) and then met me again recently are always surprised that my accent has changed. My accent now is pretty non-descript and I am fine with that, but there are certain words I can’t say without “Northern Kym” creeping through — i.e. glass, grass, dance, chance… Anyway, I digress.
My next opportunity for public speaking came at a London-wide talent show in 2002. I had a small dance troupe who would often be given the chance to perform for the talent show in the guest spots. On one particular occasion, the show’s host cancelled last minute. I was stood backstage getting my group ready to open the show when the organiser ran up to me frantically and said “I need you to host this for me, you’ll be great, just speak into the microphone and read the names on the list, that’s all, it’ll be great, have a blast, on you go!”
Before I knew it, I was standing on stage under the spotlight in front of 200 people, holding a microphone and a clipboard trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. With no time to think about being terrified, I did as I was instructed…
”Errr…welcome to the UK Unsigned Showcase, the first act is…ummm…my dance group! Please welcome DarkSide to the stage.”
And that was it, the show was rolling. I came off sweating buckets and looked down at the list, there were 17 performances in total. I figured if I could do one then I could do the other 16, so I did, and as the show wore on I began to feel more and more at ease until eventually, I enjoyed my 30 second stints on stage — even managing to throw in a “make some noise” here and there. At the end of the show, the organiser came back to me saying “that was brilliant! Would you like to host the next show?”
I agreed and so the public speaking aspect of my career began in earnest. I have hosted pretty much everything since then, from corporate awards dinners to underground hip-hop rap battles, I’ve led talks and seminars on starting and building a business and taken part in discussions and debates in business, the arts and culture… and I enjoy every moment of them, but to this day I do still feel that familiar knotting in the pit of my stomach before I first step out on stage.
I’ve hosted and spoken at hundreds of events and I still get nervous — but I’ve learned how to convert that nervous energy into more productive, excited energy, I know that whatever happens on stage can be recovered from with a smile and a bit of banter. I also know is that my ability to speak and present myself confidently in public is one of the main reasons I have achieved the success I have to date.
So, why should you care about being a confident public speaker?
Well, there are a few reasons actually and here are some of them:
Practice makes perfect
The more you do it, the more confident you become. This self-confidence transfers into other areas of your life, including becoming less awkward in social situations. You become more comfortable with yourself across the board and it shows.
Leading the pack
People see you as a leader, and you have the ability to change people’s minds/persuade them — you can drive change. One of the traits high-level executives have is the ability to speak well in public (and this trait feels a lot more useful to me than “getting up at 4am” and “drinking kale juice” which is often what’s bandied about in the “14 things Mark Zuckerberg does to ensure success”). As a business owner it is important to inspire those around you and being able to speak to people confidently (whether you know them or not) is a large part of that.
You blow the competition out of the water — If we know that over half of the adult population are afraid of public speaking and you’re able to present yourself clearly in front of an audience, then you automatically stand head and shoulders above the others. This could be the kicker if the reason you’re speaking in the first place is competitively for business support, funding or investment.
People see you more often and so you’re exposed to more opportunity — speaking in front of a group of people is the ultimate networking fast track. They all know who you are, they all know what you do and if your speaking was half decent they’ll remember or refer you when someone with your skillset is needed.
Allows you to become a better communicator overall — with limited time to explain yourself clearly and get the message across, you learn to articulate ideas effectively and more accurately. The more you do this in speaking the more you’ll find you do this in other situations, such as sending emails or having telephone calls — you become more efficient and learn how to communicate exactly what you want to without the dragging.
So, what can you do to overcome the fear?
Preparation is key — know your material and what you’re speaking about. You can script it if that feels better but don’t memorise it word for word as if you forget any of it you end up stumbling around like a bad Dragons Den pitcher, this is when the whole thing comes unstuck. Memorise any facts or figures (along with their sources) if necessary, then be able to talk comfortably about the surrounding subjects. Don’t try to include too many key messages, so long as you keep them to a minimum it should be easy to stay on track and remember all the important stuff.
Practice — talk to yourself in front of the mirror, and pay attention to your body movements, gestures and facial expressions. Make sure you’re standing tall and confidently, that you’re welcoming and that at no point you turn your back to your audience. I’m a walker and prefer to wander around whilst speaking on stage which allows me to engage different parts of the audience, if you are too just remember that not all speaking setups allow you to be able to do this, so be prepared to be just as engaging and energetic even if you’re standing still.
Remember to breathe — slowly and deeply. At your pace. Take oxygen in, hold it and use it. Pause if you need to. You have the spotlight and can, therefore, dictate exactly how this speaking session is paced, make sure it’s comfortable for you.
Relax — as much as you can and ignore that niggling fear of rejection — “but what if everyone HATES my speech?”. They won’t, the audience is there to hear you speak for a reason. I sometimes jump up and down just before I’m about to go out on stage just to get the blood flowing and my mind focused. Some people like to do full on exercise routines (sit-ups, push-ups etc.) but I’m not sure it’ll ever get that serious for me. Others like to listen to their favourite song to motivate and energise themselves. Whatever works for you.
Keep breathing — see above!
Slow it down — Speak slightly more slowly than you would during a conversation. This will just help you to annunciate more clearly so everyone can hear and understand what you’re saying. Not too slowly mind you, you want to keep up an energetic pace, but you do need for everyone to know what you’re saying. Try and test the microphone before you use it (turn up early if need be) so you can judge how best to speak into it for the clearest sound. Talk directly into the microphone for the best sound, try to avoid holding it too high up otherwise you’ll muffle the sound. Nothing worse than being unable to combat the crappy Fisher-Price microphones some venues have.
Incorporate the audience — Make eye contact with different audience members. If the lights on stage are bright and the audience is too dark, look just across the horizon towards the back row — most people will think you’re looking at them. Also, remember that your audience might be on different levels so you may have to look up every so often too. Ask questions but don’t really expect an answer, most audience members will simply stare at you. If it’s a simple yes or no thing, you might get a head nod or shake here and there, otherwise continue as you were. Audiences, in general, are not very responsive and it doesn’t get much more cringe-worthy watching a speaker attempting to drag an answer from an audience in order to move on. #Tumbleweed
Incorporate your experiences — include any relevant anecdotes or stories. If they’re funny some people will laugh with you and some just won’t, it doesn’t matter, simply continue as planned…unless you’re specifically doing stand-up, in which case I’m not qualified to advise you on how to cope if no one laughs at your jokes #BackToTheDrawingBoard
And finally, a bonus tip, be VERY careful if using PowerPoint. It’s boring. If you want to use visuals then certainly do so, but graphs and bullet points during a talk are a surefire way to put your audience to sleep. I’ll write another blog post about creating engaging visuals for speaking/presentation purposes in the near future.
In the meantime, if you are using PowerPoint make sure the slides are well laid out, the content is simple, credible and easy to understand, and they are appropriate for your audience. Use pictures and video content to illustrate your point over extensive text.
Have you had any crippling public speaking experiences or any great tips to overcome the fear? Let me know right here in the comments below or connect with me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook @KymberleeJay